Meet the Street Pastors on the frontline during the Edinburgh party season
FLAT out on his back on a freezing pavement, the passed-out party-goer is the very embodiment of Christmas excess.
City centre officer PC Chris Green patiently tries to rouse the man without success before helping him onto a nearby bus stop bench.
The nearby Bell Clock Tower in Festival Square ticks to 1.21am and Lothian Road is alive with passing revellers shooting concerned glances at the oblivious man.
Charity Street Assist is called and volunteers arrive to take him to their Tollcross treatment room to recover. But they arrive by foot, their three ambulances are busy on other calls, so the man is carried into the back of PC Green’s police van for the journey.
The whole painstaking process takes about half an hour and for that time, PC Green is off his beat and unable to respond to potentially more serious incidents.
This is a snapshot of life for the emergency services on the frontline of the Capital’s party season.
The Evening News was granted exclusive access to police and partners on what they call Black Friday in the lead-up to Christmas.
“There’s the biggest footfall and people start drinking early,” says PC Green’s partner PC Derek Barbour, preparing for his shift.
“It only takes two or three incidents to stretch us – that’s why we have significantly more officers on at the weekend,” adds PC Green.
The night starts with a briefing at 9.30pm deep inside West End police station before officers drafted in from all over the city are paired up for foot patrols.
From there, they fan out across the city centre in high-vis uniforms with a brief of stopping trouble before it starts.
First stop is to check-in with the Street Pastors making final preparations for a night shift at their base in The Pleasance.
Tell-tale glimpses of over-indulgence reveal themselves on the drive across town – a woman falls to the pavement in the Grassmarket, a young man is propped against a wall by friends.
The Street Pastors band of sixty-something Christians give up their time every Friday and Saturday to help those stranded on the streets.
Flip-flops for barefooted women in the summer are set aside in favour of flasks of tea and blankets for those caught in the winter chill.
Supplies safely stored in rucksacks, they head out for a split shift – first for the pubs and bars of the New Town and then on to the Old Town and its clubs.
“Mainly people have had too much to drink and they’re just lying on the ground,” says street pastor of five years Nicky Donald, 61. “Girls are a big concern because they are more vulnerable. All these going to office parties and having drank too much.”
The pastors are also there to listen and lend a helping hand to those who find themselves on the streets long-term. Their work understandably sticks in the memory of those they help.
“One night there was a couple walking along in the street. The man introduced himself as David and said street pastors had stopped to talk to him when he was on the streets,” says Nicky.
“He got onto a drug rehabilitation course. He’d got a job as a chef and a girlfriend 18 months later – it was so nice to hear.”
PC Green adds. “It’s a massive help. It’s remarkable because people are giving their own time as well. It’s incredibly helpful.”
Back out on the streets and the sheer breadth of police officers’ work through the night is immediately evident.
PC Green turns traffic cop to berate three drivers for ignoring no entry signs after 10pm in the Cowgate.
All three are let off with a warning as only repeat offenders are hit with a ticket.
On to the west Tollcross base of Street Assist and up to 20 volunteers are preparing for the night ahead.
Recent reports suggest such so-called “drunk tanks” could be rolled out to relieve the strain on accident and emergency units caused by drunken revellers.
While Street Assist founder Neil Logan recognises the role organisations like his can play, he dismisses the “drunk tank” tag for “stigmatising” those in need of help.
The charity has treated more than 1,100 patients so far this year and Black Friday is to be one of their busiest nights – including helping the passed-out man in Lothian Road.
Typical patients include young women found on the streets having been separated from their friends – but other cases can be far more sinister.
“We find girls on their own who’ve had their drinks spiked,” says Neil, 48. “They’re vulnerable.
“In Christmas party season we’re getting people we don’t normally see.”
Volunteers run a safe treatment room at Central Hall, West Tollcross, where patients can recover while friends or family are contacted.
“About two months ago we came across a girl who had been raped in Lothian Road,” recalls Neil. “We brought her here and the police interviewed her.”
At 12.45am we find taxi marshall Laura Henderson helping party-goers into cabs – tonight’s queue is orderly and in good spirits but that is not always the case.
Laura has been doing the job for nine months – and has been involved in three “altercations” in that time – the most recent outside the Omni Centre in Greenside Row.
“Two men jumped in the queue and I told them to go to the back,” recalls single mum Laura, 31, from Wester Hailes. “As I explained to one, the other hit me in the face. I wasn’t injured, just got a sore face.”
Shortly after 1am, we turn off Rutland Square and a man, rocking unsteadily and urinating against a wheelie bin, is caught in the full glare of our headlights. It will be a scene repeated later in George Street and elsewhere.
PCs Green and Barbour get out to hand the man, now sporting a sheepish expression, a £40 fine.
“That’s somebody’s property. Somebody’s going to have to touch that bin,” says PC Barbour, back in the van.
As their shift nears an end, PCs Barbour and Green reflect on a comparatively quiet Black Friday.
“There’s no rhyme or reason,” says PC Green. “We come across people and we can stop something bad or help someone out.”